Tom Plate’s Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew is worth reading because the Singapore leader spoke so candidly to the American journalist. Asked what he thought of democracy, Lee Kuan Yew said:
“I do know that the present system is not, as (Francis) Fukuyama believes, the end of history, that nothing else can excel democracy. That’s not true.”
He also said:
“I frankly do not believe that one-man, one-vote, in either the US format or the British format or the French format, is the final position. I mean, human society will change over the years with technology, with free travel. The demographics of countries are changing with mixtures of population.
“What will be the end result? I don’t know.”
Who knows what the future holds?
Of course, I love the exchange of ideas found in a democracy. One of my favourite quotes is the words of CP Scott, the legendary former owner and editor of the Guardian:
“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
But it would be wrong to think only democracy can inspire national pride and patriotism.
Think of the enormous sacrifices made by the Russians, Germans and the Japanese in World War II.
Think of the fierce reaction by the Chinese when Olympic torchbearers were greeted by pro-Tibetan protesters in Paris and London before the Summer Games in Beijing in 2008.
Of course, my first inclination is to read what appears in the New York Times and the Guardian than what’s being reported by the Chinese news agency.
But that’s because I grew up reading Western authors and listening to the BBC.
We can do all that in Singapore, but the local media doesn’t have the same independence as the BBC because, as Tom Plate notes:
LKY does not see how it is possible to rule very wisely if one does not rule very firmly. Strong leaders make hard decisions that stick. Weak leaders make poor decisions or not at all.
Plato meets Machiavelli
He is on the same wavelength as Machiavelli, who advised firm leadership, notes Plate. He recalls Machiavelli’s words in The Prince that, for a leader, “it is much safer to be feared than loved… because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated”.
Tom Plate can’t contain his admiration for Lee Kuan Yew. He gushes:
“It seems to me that Lee Kuan Yew is where Plato meets Machiavelli – in the special land of Confucius.”
I have never been interested in Confucius.
But Plato had his doubts about democracy.
And, let’s face it, Lee Kuan Yew has been more successful than Machiavelli in his lifetime.
Banished from power, Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo the Magnificent, hoping to win the favour of the powerful Medici family, but that never happened, from what I read in Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence.
Only Queen Elizabeth has reigned longer (since 1952) than Lee Kuan Yew has been in office (since 1959). His only contemporary still in power is Fidel Castro, who led the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
He could not have achieved what he has if he had been in India, he said.
“But why?” asked Tom Plate.
Culture and DNA
“It’s an established ancient civilization,” replied Lee. “Nehru and Gandhi had a chance because of their enormous prestige, but they couldn’t break the caste system. They could not break the habits.”
To LKY an inherited culture is sort of like a country’s DNA… In a famous and influential 1994 interview with Fareed Zakaria in Foreign Affairs, the semi-official journal of the US foreign policy establishment, Lee spelled out his Toynbeesque view that culture is destiny.
Lee openly expressed doubts about the future of America because of its growing Hispanic population. He told Plate:
“By 2050, the Hispanics will overtake Anglo-Saxons. So, either you change their culture or they change you, and I do not believe that you can change their culture…
“I mean, you look at Latin America… Those Hispanics that Obama has appointed to the cabinet or Clinton appointed to the cabinet or George Bush appointed to the cabinet, those are exceptional Hispanics, but the total Hispanic culture will remain what it is. So, you will lose your dynamism, and if you continue with one-man, one-vote, they will set the agenda.”
Lee is also critical of what’s happening in the Muslim world.
And he sees the emergence of China as a great power as history turning full circle.
Lee’s “elitist approach to governance can be attributed to his DNA debt”, says Plate,” to the track record of highly effective Chinese Mandarins in past dynasties.”
But Chinese art and culture also allured Europeans during the Enlightenment, as one can see from the decorations inside the Versailles palace.
Lee Kuan Yew’s “elitist approach”, to quote Plate, and his intellectual curiosity about everything from history to economics are reminiscent of 18th century European rulers like Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great who enjoyed absolute power and were intimate with French philosophers like Voltaire.
Reviewing Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew on The Huffington Post, Nathan Gardels disputed Hispanics would make America weaker. He added:
But mostly, Lee Kuan Yew’s wisdom makes sense. Tom Plate has done a fine job of conveying it for a Western audience that ought to be paying attention.
A Google search turned up no other reviews on any well-known Western publication.
The book is published by Marshall Cavendish, owned by Singapore Press Holdings.